[Part of the Slow-Rolling Orientalism roundtable.]
Those looking for a detailed examination of Craig Thompson’s Habibi would do well to read Nadim Damluji’s recently published review on this site.
Nadim’s article had an unexpected side effect. The generous tone of his article convinced me that Thompson’s comic was still worth reading despite its flaws. What that review didn’t prepare me for was the tale’s construction — a collation of tidbits from Islamic art presented in an ad hoc manner in order to denote sincere contemplation. The composition of Habibi seems less governed by concerted purpose than the passing interest of the author who intermittently introduces religious, scientific, and poetic subjects into his work without fully incorporating them into his narrative. Themes are inserted, explained, and discarded in a matter of pages; frequently devolving into distractions and adding little in the way of density to the book as a whole. One imagines a flitting bee, passing from flower to flower ever in search of a suitable subject matter for illustration and juxtaposition, yet bereft of any deep intellectual purpose or real spiritual engagement. The rich thread of narrative weaving and insight is not to be found in this work. Thompson’s characters are caricatures whose actions follow the dictates of a fairy tale less the wonder and the imagination. They are dried husks whose presence is so foul and whose formulaic fortunes are so unbearable as to elicit an all consuming desire to scream.
In many ways, I’m stunned that Nadim managed to get through the comic with so little complaint. I’m certainly amazed at the strength of his constitution or at least his stomach. Perhaps he has taken fully to heart the instructions of the Qu’ran that “…whosoever shows patience and forgives that would truly be from the things recommended by Allah”
As Nadim points out, at least three quarters of Habibi seems to be the product of a mind which chose to pore over images by Ingres, Delacroix, and other assorted Orientalist painters; this as opposed to any adequate political and cultural histories of the Middle East. As Thompson explains in an interview at Bookslut in 2004:
“…it’s a sort of an Arabian folktale of my own making. Not that I have… not that I’m justified in telling such a story; it’ll definitely be filtered through my isolated Western sensibilities. But that’s the stuff I’m reading now, a lot of Islamic art, culture, the original Arabian Nights, the Burton translation. I’m going to go on a trip to Morocco in about a month. I’m just sort of drawing on all these fun, fantastical, exotic elements of Islamic culture.”
And later in another interview at Millions from 2011:
“I trusted the Turkish writer Elif Shafak — she wrote The Bastard of Istanbul — who describes fiction as a way to live other lives and in other worlds. You don’t need to have those experiences directly. It’s almost a shamanistic journey where by tapping your own imagination you access these other roles. And I trusted that.”
The comments from 2004 may not tell the full story of Thompson’s creative endeavor but they are revealing. Of note is Thompson’s choice of the Burton translation of The Arabian Nights as opposed to a modern one by a native speaker such as Hussain Haddawy. In the introduction to his translation, Haddawy notes that “from Galland to Burton, translators, scholars, and readers shared the belief that the Nights depicted a true picture of Arab Life and culture at the time of the tales and, for some strange reason, at their own time….Burton’s translation…is not so much a true translation of the Nights as it is a colorful and entertaining concoction.” He proceeds to label an excerpt from Burton’s translation a parody or a self-parody. This is exactly what we get in Habibi. As Thompson explains in an interview at Guernica:
“The late 19th-century French Orientalist paintings are very exploitative and sensationalistic. They’re sexist and racist and all of those things, and yet there’s a beauty to them and a charm. So, I was self-consciously proceeding with an embrace of Orientalism, the Western perception of the East….“Embrace” may not be the right choice of words. The book is borrowing self-consciously Orientalist tropes from French Orientalist paintings and the Arabian Nights. I’m aware of their sensationalism and exploitation, but wanted to juxtapose the influence of Islamic arts with this fantastical Western take.”
Knowing or not, this parody of Middle Eastern culture shows little evidence of irony or cynicism. A charitable reading might suggest that Thompson subverts his source material by revealing the layer of cruelty behind French Orientalist paintings but, as Nadim points out, that sense of barbarism is part and parcel of a scornful ideology which has been promulgated throughout the West and which is accepted as fact today — a view which sees those men and women as objects of fantasy and, more acutely, members of an alien and subhuman world. This is a perception of that society as one which has little to offer the modern world except exoticism and the glories of past ages. It is an experience so infuriating that one would do well to wash out one’s eyes and brains with the novels of Naguib Mahfouz and Orhan Pamuk having taken it in. The works of the latter author in particular would provide an object lesson in how best to traverse the borders of history, myth, and contemporary society which Thompson has chosen to explore.
What follows is a bare bones summary of Thompson’s narrative. As a young girl, our fair heroine, Dodola, is sold by her illiterate and destitute father to a scribe to be his wife. The scribe proceeds to deflower her but she gains some learning through her husband’s occupation. Her husband is subsequently killed and Dodola is seized by bandits, caged, branded, and enslaved. She manages to escape with a young black slave, Zam, who proceeds to fall in love with her. Dodola struggles to find sustenance and swiftly falls into prostitution, selling her body for food while seeking refuge in an ark-like boat stranded in the rolling sands of a vast desert. There our hapless maiden is violently raped by one of her customers. She is then abducted by a sultan of sorts who promptly puts her in his harem where she is shown at toilet, learns to use her feminine wiles, is raped repeatedly, tortured, and finally made pregnant.
This brings us up to about the halfway mark in Habibi and it should be clear from this synopsis that Thompson has been true to his word and purpose as stated in his interview at The Crimson:
“The focus of Habibi,… is not political or even historical; the power in this tale lies in human passion, sometimes cruel and sometimes sweet, combined with its geometric precision and deep sense of the sacred.”
In other words, Habibi is a kind of pulp novel with the author layering his cake with stylish Arabic calligraphy and stray excerpts from the Qu’ran; a comic following upon the much superior genre works of Christophe Blain (Issac the Pirate and Gus & his Gang) and their tone of contemplative adventure. Lest one has any doubts as to the motivations of the author, it is also peppered with a selection of half-baked feminist grievances bemoaning the fate of Arab women; this not solely evidenced by the perils of Dodola but also visions of a stopped up dam (“She was a slender river, but we plugged her up good!”) and the inclusion of a lover who mutilates his own genitalia because of the shame he feels in his own sexuality (and perhaps in the male sex to which he belongs)
Later, a short retelling of “The Tale of the Enchanted King” (from The Arabian Nights) is labeled racist and misogynistic by Dodola. It is a moment of self-awareness meant to be self-referential and critical, both of those ancient tales and perhaps all that has gone on before. Where Alan Moore chose to elevate the insanity and inanity of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen so as to mitigate the inclusion of the character Golliwog, Thompson inserts sly winks and homages to Orientalist painters, trotting out caricatures without let or hindrance. What I sense is a certain amount of admiration for the technique of those painters, now ingrained with the pathos of oppressed females and the politics of racism. The seriousness of Thompson’s project is further emphasized by his careful study and deployment of Arabic script. This jumbling up of fantasy and political correctness produces not only an uneasy aesthetic alliance but affirms every negative stereotype produced through years of Western indoctrination; this despite Thompson’s presumed best intentions. While it may be true that Thompson’s cartooning lacks the emotive and stylistic range to capture the pain and suffering he is depicting (almost everything takes on the sensibility of an exercise in virtuosity or an educational diagram), it is sufficient to imbue the proceedings with a certain gravitas. If we are to accept the heroine’s predicament as genuine and emotionally involving, so too must we accept the veracity of Thompson’s view of Arab civilization. There are few if any countermanding examples provided.
The resultant comic is one that will excite every Western prejudice imaginable; not only of a depraved society but one of helpless, abused Arabian women begging to be saved from their bestial male counterparts. Just as the picture of a mutilated Afghan girl on the cover of Time magazine was used to justify the ongoing war Afghanistan, so too does Thompson’s comic inadvertently excite the bigotry of the unsuspecting and the gullible; a side effect which is totally at odds with his project of syncretizing the three major religions of the region. While Thompson displays earnestness in exploring the roots of these beliefs, he is completely facile when exploring their real and far more important differences — in particular the arch and potentially violent disagreements on these similarities. There is no stronger and more problematic symbol of this in our modern age than the Dome of the Rock (and the Foundation Stone contained therein) on the Temple Mount.
Not being a Muslim or of Middle Eastern extraction, it is hard for me to gauge the level of offence Thompson’s comic would cause the average person living in that part of the world. Now I can imagine a comparable comic with a Chinese woman with butterfly lips and dressed in flowing silks, mutilated by having her feet bound, opening her legs in the royal courts, and being bought and sold like live stock. All this before a flash forward to a pollution-ridden metropolis with individuals living lives of quiet desperation built on the foundation of ancient monstrosities. That tale of woe would probably end with our Chinese damsel in the arms of a brawny Caucasian as is the case in classics such as The World of Suzie Wong. In such an instance, I suspect that most modern Chinese would laugh it off as just the work of another ignorant American or an unimaginative, dated satire. From Thompson’s interviews, it would appear that some of his Muslim friends gave his explorations of the underbelly of Middle Eastern civilization a firm thumbs up. As the author puts it in his interview at The Millions:
“There’s a very offensive Islamophobia that happens in the media, especially the conservative media. But then there’s also this overly-PC, liberal reaction to tiptoe around a lot of subjects which I think is its own form of insult, because the Muslims I know are very open-minded people and would rather engage in a dialogue.”
It might be educational if one of these individuals were to step forward to defend the first 400 or so pages of Habibi. It would count for something if some of them found Thompson’s comic a fair and accurate depiction of their culture. For my part, I found Habibi utterly repugnant and well deserving of a place on a list of worst comics of 2011.